Thursday, July 1, 2010

Train from Johor Bahru to Bangkok

The past 4 days have passed in a whir!!

Tuesday morning the marina shuttle picked us up promptly at 06:30 and delivered us to the train station in Johor Bahru. We arrived at the train station at 07:30, just 10 minutes before our reservations would have been automatically canceled for the 08:47 express train to Butterworth at Penang. The train ride was pleasant. We were booked in first class, but Zachary insisted that he been in first class in airplanes and this train coach was definitely not first class. The train is "tired" but still nice enough. We reversed the seats to face one another. Both Zachary and BeBe were good on their first long passenger train trip. There was too much motion to allow them to read or play with their DS(es) -- trying to avoid motion sickness. We played poker and war instead until the adults were sick and tired of cards.

Zachary is very flexible for a child of his size. One does not normally expect the large or ample sized person to be flexible. Several times we noticed him relaxing and resting his head on his foot. He insisted this is a comfortable position for relaxing. Sort of freaks me out. Then, to burn off excess energy, he started lifting himself by his upper arms and sitting above the seat. BeBe tried hard to do the same positions but she did not have the upper body strength to do it. She also could not do the half-lotus position on top of the arm rests that he managed so easily. On the other hand, she can squat and sit comfortably on her heels like an Asian; but he can't get his butt down onto his heels and remain upright.

After a thirteen hour trip we pulled into the Butterworth terminal. It was only a few minutes walk to the ferry across to Penang where our hotel awaited.

The onward train to Bangkok was scheduled for the next afternoon, so we would be in Penang for only one night on this segment of our vacation. We had booked two rooms in a cheap hotel, one for the girls and one for the guys. This cheap hotel was fine.....the air conditioning worked in both rooms; there were hot showers; the televisions worked and had a couple of English speaking channels; and the complimentary breakfast included foods that both kids would eat. What more did we need? We walked around a bit, but it was too hot to enjoy it very much. Elisabeth wanted a head scarf like the Muslim women and girls were wearing and she found a pretty one from a sidewalk vendor for about $3. I would not let her buy a hijab, but the pretty scarf met my approval. She plans to wear it in her room when playing with her stuffed animals and her brother, baby Damien. (It is so funny to us that she always calls him baby Damien, never just Damien.) During our shopping walk we passed the Cititel Hotel and stopped in to see their facilities. We probably will book a room there for a few nights in Penang on our return trip in a couple of weeks. Then we took the ferry back across to Butterworth to await the train for Bangkok. The ferry terminal is adjacent to the Penang marina. This provided us an opportunity to see for ourselves how rolly this marina is with the ferries constantly coming and going. It was rolly but not unbearable. We probably will be visiting this marina when it is time to obtain advance Thai visas before we sail to Phuket in December. The advance visa will allow us to stay in Phuket for 30 to 60 days rather than the normal 15 days allotted to those who arrive without visas.

We were early so Bill walked around the area and found fried chicken and rice for lunch. I had brought a cooler bag filled with all sorts of delights for our train ride the previous day; but we were now down to yogurt, apples, cheese & crackers, and peanut butter with a fresh loaf of bread purchased from the local 7-Eleven near the hotel. Oh, we also had leftover toll house cookies and a couple of small loaves of breakfast breads. We had no idea what to expect regarding food that might or might not be available for sale on the 22 hour train ride to Bangkok. You have to be a little more prepared when there are 4 mouths to feed instead of only 2.

It turned out that the Thai State Railway does sell meals on this particular route. And they were pretty darn good meals, too. They even sell beer, so Bill was happy. Zach and BeBe had just finished eating PB&J sandwiches and apples when the attendant delivered menus for dinner and breakfast selections. These were set meals and seemed like a lot of food so we ordered only 2 dinners thinking that the kids could eat part of ours if they were still hungry. Whatever Bill ordered for dinner was too spicy for either of the kids, but both of them enjoyed my vegetarian meal. They especially liked the soup. Zach wants the recipe for the Thai vegetarian soup so his parents can cook it for him at home. There were also several food vendors who boarded the train at various stops and wandered through our coach hawking selections of local foods. Some of the items looked delicious, but we had more than we could eat in the dinners purchased from the railway.

Shortly before dinner we reached the Malaysia/Thailand border. Clearance formalities were very simple.....just stand in one line and have the passports stamped out of Malaysia....then walk to the other side of the same building and have the passports stamped into Thailand. We did not have visas for Thailand but that was not a problem. As US citizens we were allowed 15 days within Thailand. If one arrives at an airport 30 days are granted; but only 15 days are allowed in one arrives in Thailand via train and does not have an advance visa.

On this train the upper berths are folded up during the day. And the 2 lower seats face one another. There is a removable table that is stored in a floor compartment between the seats. At night the 2 lower seats move down to make a bed. A thin foam mattress is placed over the seats. An attendant does all this and also makes up the beds with fresh linens; then curtains are hung for privacy for both the upper and lower berths. We had decided that Bill and I would have the 2 lower berths and the kids could take the upper berths. This worked until Elisabeth found a tiny cockroach crawling on her bed.....and that was the end of her staying in that bed. Can't really blame her. Roaches make my skin crawl too! My lower berth was wide enough for the both of us. Thank goodness she is a calm sleeper and doesn't thrash about all night like her cousin does. The next morning I woke her up so she could see the beaches along the Gulf of Thailand that were only 100 meters from our window. She tried her best to be grumpy about being awakened, but you can see by the corners of her mouth that it is all she can do to keep from smiling.

We left the tables in place after breakfast and let the kids watch movies since there was an electrical connection on the wall next to our cubicle of seats. We were lucky because these were the only electrical outlets in the train car. Glad we were fortunate enough to be assigned seats right next to them. This also enabled us to play games on the laptop and to charge their DS(es).

Bill thought the trains we had been traveling in were "tired" until he saw how the local trains looked. This train was one of the better local trains. The people looked hot in that non-air-conditioned train.

Our train arrived on schedule around noon. Bill found an ATM machine while I went into the advance booking office to collect our tickets for the trip to Chaing Mai next week. While there I also purchased return tickets to Penang; but I did not have my calendar out and bought tickets for the wrong date of travel. We should be able to pay a penalty fee and obtain tickets for the correct date when we return to the train terminal for the trip to Chaing Mai. Then we found a taxi and headed to the hotel.

We are staying in a family room at a small hotel that was highly rated on Tripadvisor and the hotel had emailed us a map and driving directions written in Thai. Without the printed map and written instructions in Thai, the taxi driver would never have found this tiny hotel. The taxi drivers speak only a few words of English, if any at all. And they do not read English, so you need everything written in Thai. Our little hotel is down an alley and then down a side alley off the first alley; it is not on a main road. Our room is on the 3rd floor and there is no elevator. It is a family room and is really 2 rooms with 2 bathrooms, with a wide opening separating the 2 rooms. We have a bathroom for the girls and a bathroom for the guys. One room contains several pieces of simple wooden furniture and the other room contains 2 queen-size beds pushed together to form one huge family bed. We put Zachary against the wall, then Bill, then me, and then Elisabeth on the outside edge. There are no televisions in the PN Hotel but they do have WiFi. Actually, there are dozens of televisions in the PN Hotel.....they are very old and definitely don't work. The entire small hotel is very artsy and there are many classic and old items throughout. We brought a few DVDs and can lie in bed for our evening entertainment. On the ground floor there is a restaurant and a raised floor building (Japanese style) with all kinds of toys, seating, computers (Apples unfortunately) and lots of vegetation and small ponds filled with tiny fish and tadpoles. Guests can book a traditional Thai massage in this little building. A perfect little hotel for traveling families but also very popular with young couples and singles.

The Thai food is wonderful. I have enjoyed every dish tried thus far. The kids are happy with fried rice with prawns as they both love shrimp, and they both love the vegetarian Thai soups. Almost everything else has been too spicy for them. I could eat vegetarian Pad Thai every single day.

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